Even as the world is abuzz about Osama Bin Laden’s death, students from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan get together at a tri-nation conference to promote understanding and debate on various issues
MUMBAI | A bunch of Pakistani students got together with their Indian counterparts as well as with a group of school children from Afghanistan for five days in Mumbai under the ‘Voices of The People’ project organised by Seeds of Peace (SOP), an international Non Governmental Organisation (NGO). The teenagers debated some contentious issues like terrorism and religion. Photography, videography and print media were used by the students to present their ‘research topics’. After working hard for five days in Mumbai, an exhibition was held at Sophia College, Bhulabhai Desai Road, where the students displayed their work.
Two-and-a-half years ago ten Pakistanis slipped into Mumbai in the dark of night and wrought mayhem, killing more than 170 people. The armed assailants were one face of Pakistan, which is so familiar to the Indians. Last week another face of Pakistan was on show in the city, the one which Indian youth could identify with easily –inquisitive, emancipated and liberal. The organisation, which strives to bring the children of conflict zones together, doesn’t seek mutual agreement on the issues but simply provides a platform to young people to express their points of view. For instance, the students from India and Pakistan may not have agreed on Kashmir, but at least they were able to appreciate each other’s point of view amicably and in the process became friends. Seeds of Peace, which started in 1993, believes the tripartite interaction will help overcome biases and misgivings about each other and promote better understanding. Agrees Noorzadeah Raja (17), a participant from Lahore in Pakistan, “Terrorism is a problem in our country but there is more to Pakistan. And that is the reason we are here. Such camps will help us develop a well rounded perspective concerning issues involving all the three countries.”
It is Sahar Sekandri’s (from Kabul) first visit to India and she is overwhelmed by the, “warmth displayed by the people here. In Afghanistan, people don’t talk much. Most of them are reticent.”
Sekandri who speaks fluent English says she had taken courses at various language learning centres in Afghanistan. “The medium of instruction in our college is Dari and English is taught as a separate language,” says Sekandri whose family, had migrated to Pakistan after the Taliban regime came to power and had returned to Kabul in 2003. “My father thought that we should return to our own country as the Taliban was not there anymore,” answered Sekandri when asked which other countries she had visited. Talking about the situation in Kabul, she says, “My parents are really concerned when we go out of the house. You don’t know what will happen next . Every day you hear about bomb blasts.”
Unlike Sekandri who was wearing a hijab, Lalen Azadani (14) was in jeans and a t-shirt without a hijab or headscarf. “Even in Afghanistan, I wear t-shirts and jeans at home and my parents don’t mind at all, but outside I have to go fully covered,” says Azadani who studies in a girls school in Kabul. She and her family, originally from Herat, are currently based in Kabul as, “they find Kabul safer than Herat. There is war in our country and the situation is bad but we hope that peace will return soon to Afghanistan. It will not happen in five or six years, it will take time till peace is restored in war-torn Afghanistan. Sooner or later though there will be peace in the country.” On her first impressions about Mumbai, she promptly says, “I like it.” Both the Afghan girls, Azadani and Sekandari want to become lawyers and serve their country. While Sekandari wants to eventually become an ambassador, Azadani just wants to be a good citizen.
Pakistan’s Faraz Saleem Malik (16), who is on his first visit to India, is already a convert to the cause of fostering unity among the three nations. Fed on the 24×7 media rhetoric against India and an overdose of bias back home, Malik feared hostility but he says he was overwhelmed by Indian hospitality. He wonders why the media is disregarding it, “Why don’t we get to hear more about the hospitality that is extended when somebody from Pakistan visits India and vice versa?”
Organisers say the camp went off extremely well. “The children are so excited with their projects. It has been a wonderful experience to actually see them working together,” says Feruzan Mehta, Director of Programmes, Seeds of Peace, India. “All we gave them was a notepad, a pen and a camera,” says Awista Ayub, Director of South Asia Programme, SOP. A total of 30 participants (most of them in the age group of 14-19) were divided into groups of three, all of them comprising members from all three countries. The members of the team had been assigned to do videos on some of the issues common to all the three countries, such as corruption and cricket. The team led by Malik made a short film on, ‘Cricket’. The task given to the group was to find out if cricket could help bind the three nations together. Malik says the outcome of his project is not surprising, “The response was good. Most of them said yes and some of them said no. Many believed that cricket should be treated just like any other game and not as if two nations are at war over it.”
Sana Kardar (19), from Lahore in Pakistan, who along with her group members made a short film on religion called, ‘Flipside of religion’. “Intentionally or unintentionally, whenever we talk about religion, we tend to link some form of extremism with it. So, we wanted to portray that there is a lot more to religion,” says Kardar, who is currently pursuing an undergraduate programme at Queen Mary, University of London. Kardar had visited Delhi before but it is her first visit to Mumbai. When asked about her first impressions of the city, Kardar said, “I think Mumbai is similar to Karachi because people live in flats and there is a space crunch. Delhi and Lahore are quite similar. I don’t even have a feeling that I am actually in a different country.”
While Kardar chose religion as her research topic, Sekandari from Kabul in Afghanistan and her group decided to work on something that has a universal appeal. ‘Love’ was what they wanted to research. Their movie shows Sekandari strolling at the Mumbai’s famous Marine Drive promenade. Sekandari carefully observes hordes of lovebirds, who gather there to spend time with each other. The movie explores the subject of arranged marriages versus love marriages in Mumbai. When asked, if love marriages are acceptable in Afghanistan, Sekandri explained, “Mostly it is arranged marriage in my country. Parents decide who you have to marry.”
If there is something that is exciting to all the participants from the three countries, it has to be Bollywood. Ask them about their favourite actors and they rattle off names effortlessly. For Sekandri, her favourite film is ‘Jab We Met’. “My favourite actor is Ranbir Kapoor and favourite actress is Katrina Kaif and I am a big time movie buff,” she admits. For Abdul Shapoor (16), from Afghanistan, it is Govinda’s dance moves that appeal to him. A self-proclaimed break-dancer, Shapoor claims to be a diehard Govinda fan. “I have watched all his movies including Raja Babu. I even try to emulate his moves,” he says. Apart from Bollywood it is cricket too, which brings the three nations together. Says one of the participants from Afghanistan, “Whenever there is a match between India and Pakistan, a few of us support India and some of us support Pakistan. But now, even we are trying to become part of the cricketing world and cricket is very popular in Afghanistan.”
Sekandri jokingly says that a lot of people had asked her if she knew Osama? “I told them that he is not my uncle,” she says Strange as it may sound, one of them who had come to see the exhibition says, “All the kids from three different countries look so similar that it is difficult to identify their nationality.” Agrees Kardar who was wearing a black velvet mini skirt, “I was mistaken for a Mumbaikar.” On her country’s image of being very ‘conservative’ Kardar firmly replies, “If my parents don’t have a problem with my attire, why should I bother about somebody else?” Kardar strongly defends her country when questioned about the fact that many perceive Pakistan as a country, which exports terror. “It is not only Pakistan. There are a lot of forces, which are active there. Blaming Pakistan for every terrorist attack that happens anywhere is not fair at all.” While students answered questions on some global issues, they definitely made friends for a lifetime. “Shapoor is more like my brother now,” says Jehan Lalkaka (17) from Mumbai, who had met an Afghani for the first time. “We are all the same, I believe,” he adds.
More importantly the programme is aimed at making these ‘seeds’, messengers of peace in the future. The concern is palpable in Mumbaikar Teju Jhaveri’s (23) words. “Everytime there is a bomb blast in these regions, you know that somebody you are close to is there. Immediately you make a phone call to ensure that he /she is fine. That is what is important,” says Jhaveri, who has been associated with the programme for nine years now.
About the Programme
‘Seeds of Peace’ was founded by journalist, John Wallach, and is dedicated to “empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills required to advance reconciliation and coexistence.”
The participants tried to capture the ‘Mumbaikar spirit’ through the lens. They visited places like Haji Ali Dargah and were amazed to see, “how people from different religions visit the Durgah to seek blessings, something that we in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot even imagine doing,” says one of the participants from Pakistan.
Many spoke to Mumbaikars and asked them, what they thought of religion. A lot of them spoke to youngsters in the city and asked them about corruption and what could be done to eradicate it. The participants also got a chance to visit a few schools meant for underprivileged children.
Many of them wanted to bring out similarities and differences between Indian, Pakistani and Afghani cuisine. A visit to various Peshawari and Mughlai restaurants in the city like-Cafe Noorani near Haji Ali and Delhi Durbar in Colaba helped them to understand more about the food in the city. While some pointed out that there were subtle differences in the way, say a naan was prepared but overall the food in all the three countries was, “pretty much the same”.
Movies made by the participants:
- Bonding over Biryani
- Sujaya (a school for underprivileged children)
- Flipside of religion
- Prince Wales Museum
- Religious pluralism in Mumbai
- Mind follower or rebel